Mohammed Shukri's ‘The Plain Bread' is Target of Hostile Press, Academic Furor in Egypt

Judith Gabriel
Web-based image of Mohammed Shukri.

International Debate Flates Over Book-Banning at AUC

The recent “banning” of books at American University in Cairo continues to fuel heated response amid a mood of watchful apprehension, following an unresolved debate involving not only the faculty and administration of AUC, but also Egyptian newspapers and parliament members as well as Arabic literature scholars and watchdogs of academic freedom.

The book at the center of the storm is “Al-Khubz al-Hafi” [The Plain Bread], a highly acclaimed autobiographical novel written in 1971 by Moroccan writer Mohamed Shukri. First published 25 years ago and translated into 13 languages, it was being used as a text in a modern Arabic literature course taught by Professor Samia Mehrez. It has recently burst into the international academic arena after becoming the target of Egyptian censorship and stirring up a hornet's nest that has spread far beyond the Arab world.

Shukri was born in the Rif in 1935, migrating to occupied Tangiers and Oran as a child. At the age of 20, he took up reading and writing with the help of Arabic manuals and teachers who were committed to eradicating illiteracy and ignorance. He ended up teaching Arabic literature at Ibn Batuta Lycee in Tangiers, and became one of the most widely-read writers in the Arab world and abroad. The book traces his famine-ridden childhood, his struggles to survive in a hostile world of dispossession and subjugation, and his ultimate emergence into the world of letters.

Last December, complaints by the parents of a few students that the book was “destructive to the morals of our children,” and that its inclusion in the curriculum constituted “sexual harassment,” prompted the university to withdraw the novel from the course requirements under the pretext that it was “obscene and damages modesty.” The complaints were not signed, and it is not known how many there were, but sources say there were, at most, three out of a class of 35 students.

The Egyptian press, spearheaded by the daily Wafd, an opposition newspaper, launched a hostile media campaign, turning out articles highly critical of the book and publishing hostile attacks on Mehrez and Shukri. One aspect of the book singled out for censure was a segment detailing how Shukri was raped as a child, a scene which a parliament deputy characterized as encouraging “homosexual behavior.” Detractors also said the book portrayed sexual scenes with prostitutes, men, cats and dogs. But champions of the book countered with literary praise and cultural defense. Professor Mehrez herself characterized it as “a very moving and candid tale of an illiterate Moroccan child of the underclass who accedes to literacy, at age 20, and is able to weave the appalling conditions of his life history into a mesmerizing text.”

In the wake of the media tirade, the book was argued in the People's Assembly, where Egypt 's Higher Education Minister Moufid Shehab pronounced that the university was to stop using the book “because it contains indecency.” A conservative deputy in parliament would have gone further, according to Mohammed Jamal al-Qalyubi of Al-Arab newspaper, who reported that Alia al-Jaar, herself a poet, spearheaded the campaign against Mehrez, seeking to have the professor punished to set an example for other “seculars” intent on spreading “obscene culture.” The minister of education, however, refused.

But the pressure was on at the university, already skittish in the aftermath of the banning seven months earlier of Maxime Rodinson's “Muhammed.” In late December, Mehrez was summoned by the AUC administration to explain her choice of the book, and met with AUC President John Gerhart, as well as the dean, provost, and AUC physician, Dr. Ikram Seif Eddin, who was representing the position of the parents.

When the university issued a statement declaring that the Department of Arabic Studies had decided against using “The Plain Bread” in the course, faculty members protested that they were not part of any process leading to such a decision, and Mehrez proclaimed that she had refused to vow not to teach the book again. In a memo to AUC faculty, she defended the autobiographical novel as a modern Arabic literature classic, and protested that the university should have defended it. Later, she told An-Nahar Supplement correspondent Khaled Daoud that “it is not acceptable for the university to act in response to what is written in newspapers,” adding that she would have liked to see a factual statement from the university–some institutional response to the campaign against the book and herself.

AUC President John Gerhart ultimately released a memo conceding that “neither the administration nor outsiders should be deciding which books are used,” but he noted that the university was being closely scrutinized “because we are a private institution and we have ‘American' in our name. But we are also an Egyptian university and cannot, and should not, ignore this fact.”


Before long, the situation was attracting attention throughout the wider world of academia. Mehrez expressed her concerns to AUC faculty and to colleagues internationally that the very principles of academic freedom and professors' choices of reading material were under attack.

The debate exploded into cyberspace. Mehrez' position was carried worldwide on a massive e-mail subscriber list, leading to an avalanche of responses in a campaign spearheaded by Professor Muhammad Siddiq of the University of California at Berkeley , and Professor Magda al-Nowaihi of Columbia University .

Al-Nowaihi defended the book on many levels, saying that to characterize it as a work that advocates sexual liberation totally misses the point. “The book is about hunger; for food, for love, for physical closeness, for respect, and for freedom,” she wrote. “These multiple hungers are caused by various structures of oppression which result in deviant behavior which the author exposes movingly and courageously.” An AUC alumnus herself, she stated that “it is disgraceful that I can read with my American students here in New York works of literature which my colleagues in Egypt dare not read with their students.”

Shukri himself entered the fray, denying that his book contained indecent text, and telling Al-Majalla magazine that it was “a social document of a certain historical period, lived by youth in Morocco and most Arab countries, specifically the colonial period, which witnessed dangerous deviancies in the life of youth, opening their eyes to a changing world, passing through phases of misery and division.”

He also sent a letter of protest to the AUC administration, in which he expressed his surprise at “the position of those behind the made-up controversy which led to forcing Samia Mehrez to withdraw my book as one of the assigned texts under the pretext of obscenity.” He praised Mehrez for her “courage and her appreciation of the role of literature in developing the idea of liberation and renewal.” In his statement, he wrote that “The Plain Bread” was “a testimony of an Arab human condition . . . that will assist the students to absorb the manifestations of a complex reality, sharpen their analytical abilities to realize the means of repression and deprivation of the marginalized.”

Expressing surprise over the “double standards” of the students who had protested the novel, Shukri told Al-Wasat magazine, “They teach contemporary literature in the American University but they are obsessed with the ‘disreputable literature' and this conspiracy against morals. I do not know how they understand ‘contemporary literature.' The simplest thing for them would be to pay a visit to other universities and colleges consistent with their own perspective.”

Egyptian intellectuals plunged right into the argument. Noted novelist Gamal al-Ghitani protested over a few parents being able to interfere with what is taught in college, while on the other side, Mohammad Amarah, a former Marxist turned Islamist, told Al-Majalla magazine “It is a shame to teach such texts to young men and women,” charging that children were being endangered “when we impose on them debauchery and prostitution which is wrongly called literary texts.”

Chilling Effect

Fears about the government's role in the university's choice of books began in earnest last May, with the dropping of the controversial book, “Mohammed,” by Maxime Rodinson, reportedly after a group of AUC alumni complained, this time, on religious grounds. As in the current case, newspapers spearheaded a public campaign against the book, resulting in the government banning it, and leaving AUC highly sensitive and vulnerable to future scrutiny.

Since then, according to AUC officials, Egypt 's Press and Publications Department, which is in charge of censorship, has put AUC's books under increased surveillance, placing more than 70 on the taboo list. The banned books were among thousands of titles ordered by AUC for its bookstore, and include volumes that had been in the library for years, according to AUC Press director Mark Linz, who told Al Ahram Weekly that they included “Cities of Salt” by Abdel-Rahman Mounif, “Lolita” by Nabokov, “Mohamed and Christians” by Kenneth Cragg, “Children of Gabalawi” by Naguib Mahfouz, “Women at Point Zero” by Nawal el-Saadawi and even “The Prophet” by Gibran Khalil Gibran. The ban also included all Penguin English-language editions of the Qur'an, and some tourist guidebooks to Egypt.

Government officials, however, maintain the only books actually banned were four titles requested as texts within AUC curricula: “Islamic Political Thought” by Montgomery Watt, “Political Islam” by Joel Beinin, “Muslim Extremism in Egypt ” by Gilles Kepel and “Distant View of a Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat. According to Lutfi Abdel-Kader, director of Egypt 's Press and Publications Department, the other unallowed books were from among those that the university bookstore ordered that were deemed to “violate our religion, culture and traditions.”

Suburban Studies?

Fears of increased government interference with education trouble many intellectuals and students, who consider the ban to be a violation of the university's policy of liberal education. Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud wrote in a recent commentary in Al-Hayat that the recent events “reduce university education to the level of elementary school, that of the suburb in which students learn only what their parents want them to learn and only what they themselves understand.”

Columbia University 's al-Nowaihi told Al-Jadid she sees the recent developments at AUC as “an ominous sign.” As to what spurred the recent crackdowns, she surmised that the government “may be trying to prove they are more Islamic than the Islamists,” a trend that concerns her because, she said, “Intellectual terrorism is an equally dangerous form of terrorism.”

“The AUC administration did not play a very honorable role in all this,” al-Nowaihi said. “They did not take a very courageous position.” She asserts, however, that “the vast majority of the AUC faculty are in fact supportive of academic freedom and feel an urgent need for a clear institutional policy regarding complaints from students and parents, and attacks from the press.”

Most students at AUC come from privileged backgrounds, she pointed out, and in the future will hold important and influential positions. “It is necessary to expose them to all aspects of society: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, clean and filthy, under the guidance of their professors. If this exposure makes these young men and women uncomfortable, or if they find it distasteful, is the solution to remove those books from the curriculum?” She told Al Jadid that “Teaching a book does not mean you are condoning everything that happens in it. The very process of developing analytical abilities involves introducing students to material that you know they will find problematic. That's how they hone their critical abilities.”

RAWI Protest

In mid-March, the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) was calling the case “a watershed for all those concerned about issues of academic freedom and artistic expression in Egypt and other Arab countries.” In a statement signed by Etel Adnan, RAWI president, and Khaled Mattawa, director of the Arab Arts Council, Shukri's book was described as “an important work of Arab literature precisely because it lets us know worlds of oppression and cruelty and everyday heroism that thrive in front of our eyes. We believe that Professor Mehrez's attempt to expose AUC students to such literature is important if these students are to contribute to improving the lives of the masses in the midst of whom they live, and for whom they hold so much promise.”

“We are keenly aware that the request to have Prof. Mehrez remove an acknowledged masterpiece of literary realism from her class roster occurred at a time of increased ideological tension in Egypt ,” the statement declared. It went on to urge the AUC administration “not to intervene in professors' rights regarding the materials and contents of their courses, and to be firm and swift in supporting its faculty's freedom to teach without fear.”

The AUC student newspaper itself called for respect for freedom of expression. Writing in a recent issue, noted Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim defended Professor Mehrez as “a Muslim Egyptian who is fully aware of the values and traditions of our society, and in adopting the Moroccan novel she expressed her belief in the values and the exercise of freedom of learning.”

AUC itself has expressed interest in seeing written guidelines from the censor's office, although the government has maintained it does not have to give details on its decisions. AUC Press director Mark Linz told the Middle East Times that while the AUC abides by Egyptian law, it also affirms “the virtues of not censoring books.” The university and the AUC Press, he added, “will always champion the principles of freedom of thought and expression, the freedom to publish, and above all the freedom of the individual to read material he has chosen.”

Ban at Cairo University

Just in the past month, however, another Egyptian university was placed in the censorship hot seat. According to the April 1, 1999 edition of Al-Wasat magazine, Cairo University has banned the teaching of Abdallah al-Nadim's “Al-Masamir,” [The Nails], a book about the Al-Urabi revolution of the 1880s, considered by historians and scholars of Arabic literature to be a classic in the field of Arabic prose and political satire.

The book became an issue when one Cairo-based newspaper criticized the author's satirical treatment of one of the Ottoman sultan's intellectuals. In this case, Cairo University 's president banned the book without first checking with the professor who was using it as a text, Dr. Abed al-Monhem al-Jumayi, who nonetheless copied pages of the book and made them available to his students, a defiance for which he is being referred to a disciplinary committee. Various sources protested the ban, and one organization, identified as the Egyptian Society of Historical Studies, wrote the president of Cairo University, asking him to change his position.

The ultimate fate of “The Plain Bread” at AUC remains suspended. Mehrez is holding on to her right to teach the book again, with Gerhart maintaining it will not be used in the lower level course. As for other titles, the university has announced it is forming a new committee to review assigned books to make sure none of them violate “traditions,” according to Al-Majalla magazine.

Meanwhile, tension continues to build over the specter of book banning–official or de facto–at Egypt 's universities, with fears being expressed that faculty members may shun teaching controversial books that could come under attack in the press, and that the university would not rise to their defense. The question has been raised that while Mehrez, a UCLA graduate, is a tenured faculty member, less-secure faculty members might not be as willing to expose themselves to a public stance in defense of academic freedom. Hoping to assuage some fears, AUC President Gerhart pointed out in a February 1999 article in the Middle East Times that in the months following the banning of Rodinson's book, people have not “scurried around and removed books from their reading lists.”

In Egypt 's increasingly conservative environment, however, the developments are being watched with apprehension and increased public outcries. “It is very difficult to know the effect this will have,” al-Nowaihi cautioned. “A debate can bring a backlash. But I want to be optimistic, and hope that a debate may lead to something positive. And I take heart that there are so many intellectuals and writers in the Arab world, working against all odds, facing their own untold dangers, still choosing to speak out regarding censorship. I admire them.”

Examples of such conviction can be found in Egypt 's not-too-distant past. As Al-Wasat magazine recently commented: “Egyptian intellectuals look back with nostalgia charged with bitterness to a different era, when the president of the university would submit his resignation in defense of academic freedom, as Lutfi al-Sayyid did in 1926 when Taha Hussein's book ‘Al-Shir al-Jaheli' [Pre-Islamic Poetry] was banned.”

Arab intellectuals–writers, educators and scholars worldwide–are anxiously monitoring the government's moves. “There has been a great pride in artistic freedom in Egypt in recent years,” al-Nowaihi told Al-Jadid. “It has been a source of pride for the government as well as having made us all very happy. So now we are all watching with great concern, hoping that the government will take a more courageous stance.”

This feature appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, No. 26 (Winter 1999)

Copyright © 1999 by Al Jadid

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